Whether currently in a rut or not one can imagine being bored by having the same thing over and over. Variety is one of the things that makes drinking craft beer great, but even with plenty of options it is common to fall into a predictable pattern, if not with a specific beer then at least a style (I am looking at you IPA). It is worthwhile giving yourself an opportunity, even a chance (“so you’re telling me there’s a chance”), of trying something new. Glomming on too quickly to a style may leave a lot of good experiences on the table, or more accurately behind the bar. If you have not had your taste challenged or changed in the last couple of months perhaps you are drinking too conservatively (don’t tell your mother I just said that).1 You want to maximize your reward, in this case delicious beer drinking experiences, to point out the most obvious but let us not overlook having a good story or being able to speak knowingly about different beers, styles, and breweries, even more reason to open up to opportunity.
Data Source: fitzsean
Exploring the nature of randomness goes beyond simple curiosity. Tied to curiosity is a desire to learn, not only to have a visceral instruction of randomness but to understand what is out there. A less routine, more arbitrary interaction with reality should bring elements of the environment to our attention at a less predictable “pace.” What we discover may change or confirm our beliefs but either way we are provided an opportunity to bring our mental representations closer in line with what exists out in the world. The timing (“pace”) of these confrontations is as much a part of the learning as the exposure. Left to our own devises we tend to cherry pick when to be exposed to new aspects of our environment. We then approach theses situations in a predefined, pre-ritualized, and primed state. With the introduction of chance we short circuit our priming process and force ourselves into situations we are, at least somewhat, unready for. This slightly uncomfortable aspect of experience is helpful at reorienting ourselves and developing new methods of coping.2
This reorientation is a mixture of internal and external elements. The internal work, the processing of new and/or inconvenient information, shakes up the mental inertia we routinely fall into, often without recognizing the pattern in the moment (ironic given how prone we are as a species to identify patterns even when/where there are none). Speaking specifically of beer we provide ourselves the opportunity to travel to different neighborhoods, patronize unfamiliar bars, try varying breweries, and explore new beers. Each of these changes provides data for consideration. This data is taken in and weighed by our preferences to determine our enjoyment of each but also, though rarer, alter these preferences ever so much.
Drinking craft beer is an exploratory journey and one of learning, regardless of how you were introduced to beer but especially for those who started with the light lager mass produced bottles of piss. The revelation that beer not only does not have to taste bad but that it also does not have to taste one specific way is a delight that keeps many going further, exploring the boundaries of both what is available and what is personally enjoyable. After a while we settle down in our explorations, but a bit of the curiosity that brought us this far remains and the point of playing with randomness is to reintroduce a sense of “what-if” and feeling of empty mind. With decisions taken out of our hands we are able to simulate a sort of return to ignorance.
Being that we are dealing with beer there is a biological, and certainly legal, limit to how much randomness we can experiment with at any one time. Due to the limitations of the liver and management’s patience in our calling out “sick” it behooves us to find various ways related, but not immediately tied, to downing a pint.
There are questions of time (will you have a drink today or not?), area (of six neighborhoods which are you willing and able to travel to?), and nested within is a decision on locale (grab a craft bar listing and having chosen the neighborhood let fortune pick the watering hole).
Before having ponied up to the bar you have allowed the winds of fate to decide for you where you will be. Now at the bar I could understand a certain desire to play it conservative and get back some level of control. Do not bother, you have made it this far. Let it ride and allow lady luck to pick your first two beers or, given the option, all 4-5 choices of a flight.
This is meant to introduce a bit of chance, diversion, and learning. Making the idea of randomness more tactile should help drive home certain ideas about capriciousness, freedom, and our own abilities to handle uncertainty, at least a low level amount of uncertainty. This is not a drinking game, grow up.
Several different tools for making arbitrary choices are available to us. There is of course the granddaddy of them all, the good ol’ coin flip; always a classic, great for making binary decisions and easily scalable to multiple choices. It is quick and definitive, the chances of it falling and resting on its edge being miniscule, it does not require any added technology so it is resilient to failures, and also lends itself to best two-out-of-three or three-out-of-five approaches if you want to let the tension build and experience a deliberate peak into your feelings on an issue as the decision nears.
“Flip ya, flip ya for real.” -Fenster, The Usual Suspects
Variations on the coin flip are looking at the first digit of a paper bill’s serial number and making choices on odd versus even. In mentioning neighborhoods I threw out the number six as casually as if I were rolling a die, another longtime favorite but one that is currently less socially acceptable to carry depending on your circle, even if no more a burden than a coin. You may be mistaken for a compulsive gambler, street hustler, or worse of all a role playing board game participant. A ready made “die” is the clock. Given the time of day you divide the one’s place by five and use the remainder (e.g., 7:45 > 4%5 == 4; 8:36 > 6%5 == 1) . This results in a five-headed die but we have to draw the line somewhere and this should be sufficient for most occasions especially in combination with other options (use your imagination).3
Data Source: Simply CVR
“The world is governed by chance. Randomness stalks us every day of our lives.” -Paul Auster
Drinking randomly is a good proxy and hopefully first step to thinking about and appreciating more fully the randomness all about us. I am not talking outright chaos but the chance encounters, business opportunities, and items that catch our attention. So very much is out of our hands, a fact we conveniently forget. We used to attribute the order of the winds, sea, and cosmos to the hidden beings in the forest, ocean, and sky. Many of us have now developed the equally misplaced hubris to allocate the credit for our life’s trajectory to ourselves. No doubt the successful people in our lives are clever, insightful and hard working but they are hardly the only ones.
In many cases the things we are reliant on, the things that have had an outsized influence in who we have, and may yet, become, came into being through no influence of our own. Our parents, the country of our birth, the religion we were raised in, or lack thereof, the year of our birth, the fact of our mothers taking an interest in our studies, our fathers being disciplinarians, or, again, lack thereof. Even the hard work we put in is instilled in us by a combination of nature and nurture. So much is out of our hands. That can be humbling and disempowering depending on how you look at it but from another angle it offers an opportunity for grand appreciation and modesty. Instead of being quick to moralize or pass judgement take a moment to consider the circumstances of another.4 Perhaps you would have done no different, or worse, in a similar situation.5
More Empirical than Experimental
The limitations of time, money, balance, and organ failure will prevent our making these explorations into randomness true experiments. Experiments are repeatable processes that ask questions of the universe and receive answers in the form of event outcomes. However, we will keep a scientific mind about ourselves and make observations for the purpose of gathering information to alleviate our uncertainty about preferences. Empirical findings will help inform probabilities, preferences, and expectations. With added input we may better inform our far from perfect representation of the world so as to better our chances of success, i.e., enjoying the delicious beer that suits us best.
Probabilities and Expectations
Being ready, willing and able to make a decision may be insufficient when confronted with several equally (un)attractive options.
There is uncertainty about what to do, uncertainty about what will happen and uncertainty of payout/return/wellbeing for the predicted result. Making a decision helps gather more information about the world and preferences, both tied to areas of probabilities and expectations. With added information we can modestly hope to make more informed decisions, giving ourselves the greatest chance of getting the things we want or hope to get under the circumstances.
With more opportunities, experience, and decisions made you gather information that can be extrapolated to future situations. Presented with new opportunities you will be in a better position to determine which way to go. Being faced with two or more mutually exclusive choices, what you should choose, in order to maximize your expected return, depends on having a reasonable expectation of the return. However, keep in mind making a decision provides no guarantee of an outcome.
One reason to flip a coin is to break a deadlock. You need to make a decision, you have weighed the pros and cons and you remain stuck, unconvinced on which direction provides the clearest advantage or smallest disadvantage depending on what rock and hard place you are caught between. Beware the stakes (Chigur!).
“Courage, I seemed to think, comes to us in finite quantities, like an inheritance, and by being frugal and stashing it away and letting it earn interest, we steadily increase our moral capital in preparation for that day when the account must be drawn down. It was a comforting theory. It dispensed with all those bothersome little acts of daily courage; it offered hope and grace to the repetitive coward; it justified the past while amortizing the future.” -Tim O’Brien, **The Things They Carried **
Let us start with small and insignificant decisions, working up our decision making skills and nerve. There are several reasons to go about making decisions in this way and typically under one primary condition. The condition is uncertainty. If you know definitively what your preference is and what would have the greater chance of improving your wellbeing then one may argue you have no reason to be undecided. Arguably.
The reasons to resort to a coin toss or some other indeterminate (indeterminable?) mechanism are several. In dragging your feet you are already making a decision and depending on the urgency of the matter a very serious one. You are deciding to delay. Perhaps you hope for more information, for the decision to be made for you, or for the opportunity to disappear (a specific variation on the previous possibility). This is fine but do not delude yourself. It is important to delay if you do not have reasonably available information with time to spare but beyond that the motive may be dubious and a candidate for bad faith.
In keeping with the idea of delay and conditions of uncertainty one of the best reasons to force a decision is to practice acting. Standing in place is not bringing any additional information. By acting we have an opportunity to impact the environment. This motion could uncover new findings, both for how the environment reacts, including others around you, and your preferences to the changed circumstances. We always act in states of uncertainty. Acting sets things in motion, helping confirm/disconfirm expectations or gather more input. In truth we rarely get enough information to make a fully informed decision, we only go to one school at a time, live in one neighborhood at a time, are friends with certain people and not others at specific times.
We only come through once in this life and while we build narratives to help explain our own history to ourselves, in the moment the contingencies of what takes place may seem more chance than choice. We need more information and we can get this from reading, speaking with others who have had similar circumstances to those we are (about to be) facing, thinking deeply, and acting. Each of these can provide relevant information to better determine the probabilities of outcomes, so as to better calibrate our expectation, and allow us to make better decisions.
Exploration v Exploitation
By the second beer style you may have already decided which you prefer but it would seem foolish given dozens, hundreds really, of beer styles and substyles that you should settle on the preference between just the two samples provided. Assuming there is one definitive style out of 100 that you will discover to love above all others and given just the first pair of drinks to compare there is a 98% chance, all things being equal, you have not discovered it yet (think Monty Hall problem).
Having an idea about probabilities and expectations you can begin to pick and choose the decisions that will lead to the greatest personal returns. Some of this knowledge will require frequent refreshing, updating and deletion. Experience in the world and updated internal representations will create a dynamic learning environment. With a finite number of choices and a long time frame you should be pretty clear on what your preferences are, think here of the diehards who swear by Miller Lite or some other nonsense. Having deliberately or unknowingly limited their understanding of what beer is they have had substantial time (think teenage/college years especially) to hone their appreciation for tasteless yellow fizz. You can say they have connoisseur level abilities with respect to light lagers. Good for their being able to (believe they can) tell the difference among interchangeable piss.
Should we tweak these conditions a bit we face different constraints and actual challenges to identifying prefered beers, or anything else (but we know where my mind usually strays). More choices alone complicates things in predictable ways but with a long enough timeline we can rest assured of being able to identify our prefered beers. A large amount of choices within a limited timeframe complicates things in more interesting ways, providing no certainty of even being able to sample all of the options. What to do? Experiment early and settle on the top choices as time winds down.
It would be the height of promiscuity and scattered attention to never repeat the same beer. In the beginning there should be ample experimentation to get an idea of the field, some looking deeper to get a better handle on what is possible, but over time a gradual settling down to what is known to be tried and true. This goes for beer, dating, and investing. You diversify, observe returns, learn, and become more particular over time.
I will leave the relationship advice out of the next suggestion, come to think of it, the financial angle also (I am not a certified financial planner nor do I play one on LinkedIn. Psst, stick with passive investing.), but you should always leave wiggle room for exploration, just to make sure. While being with the same partner has been shown to have its advantages and see a love develop beyond the juvenile expectations of simple romance (Beyond Romance) the skeptics have always resorted to metaphors of eating the same meal for the rest of one’s life as an argument against settling down. The appropriateness or accuracy of such a comparison aside, you need not worry about such restrictions when it comes to craft beer.6
Unlearning complacency, unnecessary optimization, and overspecialization
“If we all reacted the same way, we’d be predictable, and there’s always more than one way to view a situation. What’s true for the group is also true for the individual. It’s simple: Overspecialize, and you breed in weakness. It’s slow death.” -Major Motoko Kusanagi, Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Randomness offers the added benefit of variation. This variation is not simply a boon to our taste buds in the way of new beers given a chance but to all aspects of this approach. Without variation we may become overly specialized, geared to only one thing, leaving ourselves (more) vulnerable to change than if we remained nimble and incorporated diverse inputs. This is tied to concepts of resilience and fragility. Optimized systems have the fat cut out of them and depend on things running efficiently in order to sustain effectiveness. If something gets thrown out of whack there is high risk of failure and possible collapse.
Withholding some degree of efficiency introduces robustness, allowing for adaptability. We see this in different forms within machine learning with respect to regularization, simulated annealing, and other fancy-shmancy sounding terms that all incorporate the concept of not overfitting models to the past. The pendulum is constantly ticking from one end to the other, but we needn’t choose either extreme.
“Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.” -Voltaire
Let us be less naive and demonstrate maturity by acknowledging our shortcomings rather than covering them up with bombast and show. The world is a complex place in which order requires a high degree of effort to sustain (think entropy). That effort is oftentimes insufficient to the task and eventually the artificial order breaks down. Better to embrace our ignorance and build around it, not ignore it stupidly. There are always many sides to the story, none of them true.
Wrap it Up
These entry-level reasons to consider randomness when it comes to drinking, practicing action and reducing indecisiveness, information accumulation on likelihoods and payouts, and exploration versus exploitation, are with us everyday and something we all do to a greater or lesser extent regardless of how aware we are of it. The extent to which we do it is worth making more explicit in order to identify the patterns we are in, proactively decide if they are serving us and worth keeping or something to attempt breaking with.
As creatures of habit changing the way we do things is not as easy as flipping a switch, or a coin for that matter, regardless of how it appears from the outside. That it may appear easier for some is a function of not being aware of their internal struggles or not giving them enough credit for the patterns they have developed to allow for smoother transitions. Get some reps in yourself by practicing with a toy subject matter, thereby building your observational, deliberative, and action-oriented muscles. It is a shame to live your life on autopilot and this is as much a risk when consuming beer as anywhere else.
Flirting with randomness is an opportunity to better appreciate the role of chance, to dispel ideas of control, provide for a sense of exploration, to gather possible new information and to break with the routine ways we approach the world. That discomfort of going against personal convention is a good thing. Stepping out of our comfort zone is required for growth and a necessity for checking our complacency.
Humans tend to be conservative decision makers who at the end of life, neither surprisingly nor ironically, regret the actions not taken over the “mistakes” committed. In the short term we are risk averse but in the long run, we are retrospectively regretful (is there any other kind, perhaps immediately in the moment?) of our timid behavior. This is one of many delightfully tragic misalignments of being human. Rather than rushing headlong into a “fix” that will most likely result in an “overcorrection” take the opportunity to challenge ways of viewing available actions: short term v long, forward looking v backward, with grave seriousness or a bit of fun disregard.
1 You could just as easy substitute ‘mind’ for ‘taste’ and ‘thinking’ for ‘drinking’, but don’t tell your father I just said that either. ↩
2 This is all baby stuff, toy examples, but the principles hold however low the stakes. ↩
3 You can always look around for items or sets that come in groups: a building’s windows and depending on which or how many are open can determine what to choose; flipping open a newspaper/magazine and counting the number of vowels on the first line of a random page; in a choice between three things look for the first primary color you see (or see three of) after having assigned a choice to each color. Mix, match, and repeat. ↩
4 Note: not the “other”. ↩
5 I have found myself lacking countless times under the best of circumstances. I am under no illusion that in a large fraction of parallel universes I am already dead from a number of boneheaded, selfish, short sighted, and childish decisions. ↩
6 For now. What will happen to our globe and society over the 21st century might derail this indefinitely; enjoy the diversity (bio, social, structural) while you can. ↩